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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: Free advice

What little wisdom there is comes through experience of productive failure. Once you’ve screwed up enough, you might not know exactly what to do but at least you’ve learned to “fail better,” as Samuel Beckett put it. As a Ph.D. student, I might not be wildly successful or augustly ancient, but I’ve figured out how to avoid a few blind alleys.
My first piece of advice would be to actually take advice. However overwhelming and unprecedented an experience may seem, most of your problems will be easier to see from a third-person perspective.
If listening to a different point of view is good, hearing a dozen is even better. Try to expose yourself to as diverse a group of people as possible. During college, most of my friends were at least ten years older than me and a good third were polyamorous. Believe it or not, you get very different advice when you ask a guy with a wife and two girlfriends about jealousy. While I never adopted their lifestyle, it certainly dispelled any illusions that my own issues and concerns were universal or inevitable.
Even in politics, this same advice holds true: Get outside of your own automatic reactions. The first step in that direction is to never hold political positions based on irritation or apathy toward others. Those are always the first warning signs of narrow smugness trying to shield itself.
This also means escaping the glass sphere of instant punditry. Now, when most people encounter a political controversy, they’ve been trained to think about it in the most meta and self-referential of terms: Does this appeal to me? It may be that you are (somehow) an untested but brilliant political strategist, but quibbling with protesters over the effectiveness of their image or rhetoric often means ignoring the substance of their demands.
Instead, whenever you encounter a political issue, try to think about it from the vantage point of those most affected and least empowered. You can never go wrong because there’s always going to be someone else around to make arguments for the side of the white, heterosexual captains of industry.
If things are still unclear, crash test a few arguments. Take provisional stances and defend them long enough until they each break down. Then you’ll begin to see beyond their faults and contradictions to some new partial truth.
At the same time, it is true that we can never fully escape our own ideological biases. Instead, all you can do is recognize and account for those prejudices and limitations. There’s really no trick to that, though, beyond what most academics insist upon: open debate, intellectual modesty and a critical examination of all assumptions.
If you aren’t finding those in the course of your study, take a few classes that do promise to challenge your beliefs. While everyone should prepare for the job market, this may be the last, best chance you have to engage in scholarly inquiry for its own sake. Make the most of it. Visit office hours and ask questions that aren’t answered on the syllabus. Read at least one unassigned book a week. Write papers about topics that bother you or you actually care about. Your instructors will love you for it.
Those who are graduating might consider a M.A. degree. Especially given our dismal economy, this would be a great idea. With that being said, I would not recommend a Ph.D. for anyone who could imagine doing something else. The job prospects for anyone aspiring to be a professor in almost any field are incredibly low, and the lost time and low wages make it impractical to get a Ph.D. for most private sector jobs. If I didn’t think academia was my calling, I would have quit a long time ago.
Indeed, I would say doing what you feel you absolutely must do is good advice for anyone. If you don’t know what path to take, look back on what you’ve already done and do what seems necessary and right. What are you good at? What excites you? What topics come up repeatedly? As with most things in life, you’ve probably already made the decision and you aren’t consciously aware of it yet.
Ultimately, though, you will find that life in the rest of your twenties gets a little calmer and a little less confusing but it doesn’t get much easier. The best that you can do is gamble on your own convictions.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is an old codger who can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

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